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What to Say Instead of Punishing to Teach a Lesson

Verbal "lessons" will never teach our children as much as what we actually do.

"Dr. Laura.....I know I need to do a better job with preventive maintenance like spending time with my daughter, but I still don't know what to say to teach her a lesson when she misbehaves. You can't prevent all misbehavior, can you? So you still need to teach them a lesson somehow, right?"

iStock/Used with Permission
Source: iStock/Used with Permission

When you start doing daily preventive maintenance, you'll be amazed at how much it helps your child WANT to cooperate. But even children who feel loved and connected and who want to cooperate will sometimes be overwhelmed by emotion and act out. Children's brains are still developing, so they have less impulse control (and as we know, even many adults get overwhelmed by emotion and act out.)

So even the most dedicated parents can't prevent all "misbehavior." What we CAN do is think of those moments as times to teach a lesson. But what's the lesson we want to teach?

Remember, if your child is "misbehaving" because she doesn't know the appropriate behavior, then it isn't actually misbehavior at all, and simply teaching her is sufficient.

But if she knows the right behavior, and her connection with you is strong (from preventive maintenance) and she's still "misbehaving," then it means she's struggling with big feelings that are over-riding her desire to follow your lead. Teaching appropriate behavior won't help. She already knows the rules. What she needs is help with her emotions, before she can reflect and repair.

So while our words are important, the real lesson isn't what you say. It's that you:

  • Calm yourself, which teaches your child how to calm himself.
  • Reconnect with your child, so she's open to your guidance.
  • Empathize, so that he feels understood and can do a better job of managing his emotions.
  • Listen, so she can tell you what she's upset about and get it off her chest.

But then you still need to guide your child toward more appropriate behavior, so you're probably still wondering "what to say" to guide behavior in a positive way. Here are the five basic steps, what to say, and what your child learns.

1. Set appropriate limits, with an understanding of your child's perspective.

It's natural to snap at kids when we think they should already know how to behave. But that won't help them behave better.

Instead, take a deep breath, acknowledge your child's perspective, set your limit, and redirect your child's impulse into acceptable behavior:

"That looks like fun! AND it's dangerous because blocks are hard. Blocks are not for throwing.... You can throw your stuffed animals, or you can go outside and throw balls."

"That does look like a cool airplane. AND you know that we aren't buying a toy for you today. I know that's hard. If it's too hard for you, we'll need to leave the store and try again to buy your cousin's present next week."

"Aidan, you love your sister, and she loves you, AND she needs to decide about being hugged. Can you ask before you hug her?"

"The rule is no screaming in the car so I can drive safely. I hear you're really mad, and I want to hear about it -- in a voice that I can listen to safely. Can you stop screaming, or do I need to stop the car?"

What does your child learn?

  • “When Mom and Dad tell me to stop doing something, they mean it. But they always understand why I was doing it, so I don't feel like a bad person.”
  • “I don't have to yell and tantrum. My parents always listen.”

2. Acknowledge feelings while you set limits.

You may feel like yelling "I told you to stop playing and get upstairs to the bathtub! How many times do I have to tell you?!" but that teaches your child that you aren't serious until you raise your voice, and it doesn't help him develop self-discipline, because he isn't choosing to give up what he's doing (since he's being forced from outside). Kids need to feel understood before they can "follow" your limit.

Instead, acknowledge his perspective, and give him his wish in fantasy: "I hear you, you don't want to take a bath....It's so hard to stop playing... I bet when you grow up, you'll never stop playing, you'll play all night every night, won't you?! You'll probably never ever go to bed! Here, let's fly that airplane up to the bathtub."

What does your child learn?

  • “I don't always get what I want, but I get something better — a parent who understands, no matter what.”
  • “It’s worth it to give up what I want, for what I want more — that warm relationship with my parent.”

3. Emotion Coach

When humans are in the grip of big feelings, learning shuts down. Help your child with emotions before you try to teach. Most of us feel like saying "Go to your room until you can speak to me in a civil tone, young lady!" but that just teaches kids that they're all alone trying to manage those big, scary emotions.

Instead, try: "Ouch! You know we speak to each other respectfully in this family. You must be so upset to speak to me like that. What's going on, Sweetie?"

What does your child learn?

  • “It's safe to show my parents when I'm upset. They understand and they help me."
  • "Feelings aren't dangerous, and we always have a choice about how we act on them."
  • "My words have the power to hurt, and I don't want to do that. I'm grateful to Mom for not flying off the handle when I was so upset. She helped me calm down."

4. Empower to Repair

Children want to know how to make things better when they mess up. Not while they're mad, of course. No one does. But when they're no longer angry, they want a chance to redeem themselves, to restore their good feelings about themselves, to repair their relationships. Don't we all?

Most of us think we're supposed to say "You go apologize to your brother this minute!" but that's humiliating and makes kids resist mending the relationship.

Instead, help your child with the emotions that caused her to lash out. Then, once your child has regained her equilibrium, empower her to make things better:

"Your brother was pretty upset when you knocked down his tower....I wonder what you could do to make things better with him?... Hmmm....You think that would help him feel better? What a great idea!"

If she says, "I never want to make things better with him! I hate him!" then she's still too angry, and needs your help with her emotions. Go back to acknowledging her feelings and helping her work through her upset:

"You're still pretty mad at your brother....Right now, it's hard to remember that sometimes you feel good about him, and that you could get back to that good place... It sounds like maybe you have something you need to tell your brother.... Want some help to do that?"

Once she's on the road to feeling calmer, try again. If she still resists, leave the repair up to her: "I know you're still feeling upset at your brother, and I understand why... I know when you feel better, you'll think of the perfect way to reconnect with him and make things better. You need to do it by dinner-time. Let me know if you need some help figuring it out."

You'll be amazed that your child will actually try to make reparations, once your family has a clear expectation that that's what everyone does -- and once she doesn't feel punished by it.

What does your child learn?

  • "When we damage a relationship, there's a cost -- and I can take responsibility to clean up my own messes.”
  • "I don't mind apologizing, once I calm down. I do want to make things better."

5. Help your child reflect.

Teaching your child the important lessons in life takes a whole lot of listening as well as talking. You've probably noticed that lectures don't work. Teachable moments are only teachable if the student is ready to learn. So practice sharing your observations and "wondering aloud" to help your child reflect on why he's acting as he is, and also on the results of his actions.

"I know you used that tone of voice because you were worried that we would be late to the birthday party, Sweetie. I get anxious when I hear shouting, and I can't drive safely. I wonder if there's another way to let me know, when you get super-worried like that?"

"I notice your brother doesn't want to wrestle with you these days.... You must miss it. I wonder whether there's anything you can do to help him feel safe and have fun wrestling with you again?"

"It's disappointing to miss words on your spelling test, I know.... The good news is that your brain is like a muscle, and if you exercise it, you can learn anything and get smarter. Want me to help you learn your words for next week?"

What does your child learn?

  • “It’s possible to stay calm and come up with solutions.”
  • “My parents help me to solve my problems.”
  • "Even when I get upset, my parents understand that I'm good inside and I'm trying; I was just having a hard time."
  • "My parents understand. They're there to help."
  • “I trust my parents."

Look at everything your child has learned, without punishment! Don't those sound like the lessons you really want to teach?